Early on in an acoustic trio performance Friday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, guitarist Al DiMeola introduced fellow picker Larry Coryell as "the godfather of fusion guitar." While this was certainly apt--even before coming to prominence with Gary Burton's quartet, Coryell had mixed jazz with rock rhythms and effects in the psychedelic-era Free Spirits--Friday's concert raised the question of whether Coryell's reputation as the sire of fusion should be an honor or an epithet.
Unlike fusion in physics, the jazz fusion practiced by DiMeola and Coryell--they shared the bill with French guitarist Bireli Lagrene, 22--seems too often to occur at room temperature, or below. In place of the emotion that has always heated jazz, their playing much of the time bore similarities to the metal genre. While fusion jazz is decidedly more literate than metal, both musics tend to worship technique, speed and flash, being as much a matter of athletic competition as of artistic composition.
DiMeola is a staggering technician, with a dazzlingly fast, clean attack that few guitarists in the world can match. Coryell is no slouch, either. Yet for all their grimacing, isn't-this-remarkably-difficult expressions, neither's playing in the nine-number set even approached the expression and nuance that Orange County master George Van Eps and many other old-school players accomplish without the theatrics.
Although Lagrene is young enough to be DiMeola's or Coryell's son, he showed much more in common with the old-schoolers. By his early teens, the Gypsy-blooded guitarist had developed an uncanny mastery of Django Reinhardt's style. (One of the more humorous images in recent jazz has to be the photo on the cover of "Bireli Swing '81," where the adolescent player was dwarfed by his Maccaferri-style guitar.)
Though Lagrene has since developed his own more contemporary style, Reinhardt's spirit and fire remain with him, setting him in a class apart from his elder partners.
Lagrene offered just one composition, a loping waltz, in a set featuring tunes by Coryell, DiMeola, Astor Piazolla, Laurindo Almeida and Chick Corea, and he did not take any long showcase numbers, as the others did. But throughout, on lyrical solos he let his notes both speak and breathe, with a Reinhardt-esque lilt and singing vibrato. And when he resorted to speed runs, they were infused with a real fire.
When not soloing, the three navigated some treacherously difficult musical passages together, particularly on DiMeola's challenging, if clinical, compositions.
About the only moments when the ensemble playing rose from impressive to thrilling was on a medley of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps," Eddie Harris' "Freedom Jazz Dance" and Charlie Parker's Savoy-era "Donna Lee." On that last section, the three--Supersax-like--rampaged in note-perfect parallel lines through Parker's tortuous bop improvisations, well warranting the ovation that followed.